Why Today's Pilgrams Have Brought Their Faith to Denver



DENVER — Denver.-- Young people from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, hundreds of them, began a spiritual pilgrimage this week where the mighty beauty of the Rocky Mountains reflects God's glory. They came with the conviction that they are a part of something bigger. Here in Denver, their convictions were confirmed as they encountered crowds, a convergence of cultures and languages and the many faces of the Church.

These World Youth Days teach us all. A delegation from Russia, whose own pilgrim steps brought them through Baltimore last week on the road to Denver, deeply touched our young people with their account of a Catholic community emerging from persecution.

There are many other lessons: a group of enthusiastic Africans full of hope for a growing Church and a changing continent listened as their neighbors, from the Sudan, spoke of war and famine; Koreans, standing together sharing stories with a kilt-clad Scot; and a gaunt young man, the single representative for the war-weary people of Sarajevo.

The young people here inspire us bishops as they do one another -- sharing their stories as well as their questions. Together we learn of the concerns touching others in our world-wide family of faith. Sunday, at an international youth forum, I heard young people speak from their hearts of devastating plague, the dispiriting corruption of politicians and governments, poverty, illiteracy.

And together, young people are sharing general concern for the decline in moral values, the oppression of materialism, the inadequacy of merely psychological and sociological explanations of life. They spoke of a hunger for a deeper spirituality where daily life connects with their faith life. They told me of a pilgrimage defined in the spiritual arena of prayer and penance, sin and grace.

As we gather, some assert that we do so at a time of unusual tension and dissension in the Church. News media, as they do every time the Pope visits our continent, have focused on the differences Catholics have with each other and with him. Of course, it is hardly news that people sometimes disagree. What is called dissent is often confusion, confusion which comes with a skeptical age not disposed to understand the pilgrim ways of faith and tradition.

It simply is not possible that tens of thousands of people from all over the world have come to Denver to disagree. What brings us to the mountains' foothills is a unity perceived in faith and more and more lived in fact.

Another pilgrim arrives today. To us, Pope John Paul II brings God's word and the same faith he nurtured during his youth under the oppression of World War II. His roots in faith took hold during the most frightening of times. Perhaps because he believed in God with such conviction during humanity's darkest moments, he is able to inspire the children of today's disorder and doubt.

Those who view our pilgrimage with skepticism question why so many come to see a religious leader with whom they do not always agree. Here they would learn the answer. Our young people come to seek clarity in a time of confusion. They open their hearts to faith over cynicism and indifference, to hope over fear and insecurity, to love over distrust and hate.

This is the fifth in a series of World Youth Days, the first in an English-speaking land. Denver follows the tradition launched in Rome and carried forward in Argentina, Spain, Poland. The theme this year is set forth in words of Jesus taken from the Gospel of John, ''I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.''

It is a theme in keeping with Pope John Paul's stated hope that World Youth Days would "enable young people to examine their deepest aspirations, to heighten their sense of belonging to the Church to proclaim their common faith . . . to make bold and enlightened choices which can help steer the future course of history under the powerful but gentle guidance of the Holy Spirit.''

The young people who gather to hear the words of Pope John Paul understand that we are all part of something bigger -- a Church which grew by a million members last year in the United States alone, a Church whose schools continue to increase in enrollment, a Church which has seen an increase in those beginning theological studies for the diocesan priesthood every year for the past three years, a Church whose hospitals serve more than 50 million patients yearly here in the United States, whose Catholic Charities is the largest private social service provider in the country.

They are part of a Church which transcends all geographical boundaries, embraces all cultures but is fixed in no single one, bridging time and eternity, young in every age.

The Most Rev. William H. Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore, is president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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